Modern local councils should be empowered, not shackled to Welsh ministers

Peter Black says local government reform must do more to empower communities.

The Welsh Assembly has recently approved stage one of the Local Government (Wales) Bill and we are currently in the process of tabling amendments for stage two.

Given that the vast majority of this bill is concerned with voluntary mergers it is arguable that it is the closest the Assembly has come to lame-duck legislation.

Six Welsh Councils put forward proposals for a voluntary merger, one of those proposals tallied with the template upon which the Welsh Government is relying. All of those proposals were rejected out of hand.

The likelihood of further voluntary mergers being put forward within the timetable that the Minister has set out is virtually nil. The Minister has said that he will reconsider the timetable if proposals come forward after publication of the map, but, given the way that the previous applications were treated, I think it’s unlikely that any local authority would commit resources in that direction again.

In the circumstances the existence of this legislation on the statute book is academic. It signals a direction of travel and is there if needed. In the old days it would just gather dust, nowadays it is not worth the megabytes that it uses up.

The reason we are in a two stage process at all is complicated but essentially boils down to a complete lack of consensus on the way forward for local government. There is agreement that 22 councils are too many, but nobody can agree what is a suitable number to replace them, what boundaries they should operate within or how many councillors each should have.

This non-consensus has been made worse by the Welsh Labour Government’s insistence of retaining ownership of the process. The Williams Commission was set up by them without reference to any other party. They tried to make it cross-party but failed to include a Liberal Democrat in its membership, whilst the other parties were not asked who should represent them. As a result no other party feels bound by the outcome.

The outcome itself was calamitous. A thick volume of analysis and recommendations written in impenetrable management-speak, which tried to set out top-down remedies for essentially community based, elected bodies. The Williams Commission insisted on publishing their own blueprint for reorganisation that relied on moving existing units of local government around like pieces on a chess board and had no regard to natural communities. As a result they satisfied nobody but themselves.

The report itself is now stymying the process as Welsh Government have become obsessed with publishing their own map and have been helplessly casting around for allies with whom to seek agreement. Nobody wants to touch this process with a barge pole and if we are to get any movement at all then the only real alternative, barring a Labour majority government after May 2016, is to bin it and start again.

We are now looking at the third reorganisation of local government in Wales in just over 40 years. It is crucial that this time we get it right and that whatever pattern of local government emerges should be sustainable for the long term. It is also right that if we are to have larger, less local authorities that they are properly accountable, transparent and representative.

That is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats are insisting that they will not support any reorganisation unless the new councils are elected by a system of proportional voting. We believe that the outcome of an election should reflect the way people voted because in that way councils will be more accountable. That in itself will produce more effective and efficient services.

We also believe that the new councils should be based on natural communities. That is why we want to throw all the maps away and ask the boundary commission to carry out its own review instead. In that way we will have a proper, objective process based on agreed principles and conducted by professionals.

The further mistake in my view was to confine the review solely to local councils and not seek to further devolve powers within Wales. This was an opportunity to widen the democratic basis of our public service delivery that was missed.

Any reorganisation of local government in Wales should reconsider who delivers key services at a local level and that should include the devolution of powers from the Welsh Assembly to the new councils. It should empower and enable councils and local people, giving them greater ownership of services.

I think it was a mistake to exclude the local health boards from the ambit of this commission. As was made clear by the then outgoing Public Services Ombudsman, these bodies are largely unaccountable to the population they serve, operate in an opaque manner, are not scrutinised or challenged in any detailed or meaningful way and deliver services that often overlap with those of other public sector providers such as local councils.

We also need to consider the role of Town and Community Councils and the National Park Authorities. Although there are good examples of effective and efficient community councils delivering good services at a local level, many are too small to replicate that provision. A sensible re-ordering of community councils could enable them to fill the gap in ultra-local service provision created by the reorganisation of unitary authorities.

Newly reformed local authorities should be more accountable, constituted on a scale that can deliver services efficiently and encompass a broader range of responsibilities so as to produce a more strategic and joined up approach to governance.

We need to examine the case to pass over responsibility for public health and community health care to these locally elected councils so as to create a single health and social care function that will eliminate duplication and waste and be accountable to local electors.

We should also look at passing other strategic responsibilities to Councils such as those for post-16 education so that they can deliver the 14 to 19 agenda as a seamless whole.

We could give councils greater strategic control of transport within their area including the power to deliver cross-modal transport solutions and a wider economic development remit. We might wish to pass on to them responsibility for community regeneration including the future delivery of communities first, and enable them to develop local economies by empowering them to regenerate town centres, and stimulate local job creation, including allowing them to retain some of the proceeds of business rates in order to incentivise economic growth and develop the local workforce.

If we are prepared to grasp the nettle and be radical then the possibilities are huge. Alas the Welsh Government’s ambition is conservative and limited. They are pursuing the lowest common denominator without a proper vision for the future of our public services. They want to pull control of services into the centre when they should be devolving it to communities.

If the devolution project is to succeed then we need to do more than sit in Cardiff Bay legislating. We need to empower people and communities not take them for granted. I am not holding my breath.

Peter Black is AM for South Wales West. He is the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson for Local Government.

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